Football: The Premier-slip

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The Independent Online
Leeds United . . . . .2

Oxford United. . . . .3

STRIKER John Byrne has trodden this path before. His seven goals were instrumental in taking Sunderland all the way to the final two years ago and he scored Oxford's first goal with a characteristic little stab in the replay at Elland Road on Wednesday night.

'That was a fantastic run at Sunderland because their supporters are so passionate,' he said. 'But, if anything, what we did against Leeds the other night was a superior result. We're in a relegation battle, they're seventh in the Premiership. To be honest, when they pulled back level after we went two up in the first match, I thought our opportunity might have gone. We're actually much better than second-bottom in the First Division, we like to play football, but I don't think we started favourites.'

The Oxford team stayed in York on the night before the match. It gave Byrne, who played 175 games for York City in the early Eighties, the chance to have a meal and a chat with some old footballing mates.

On Wednesday morning the team trained on the Knavesmire near the race course - 'just to wake us up, really,' said Byrne. The tactics for that night were barely discussed, having been thoroughly researched and rehearsed in earlier days. 'In the afternoon we all went for a kip. It's become almost traditional for most players to grab a few hours when there's a night match. I slept all right,' Byrne said.

At 5.45 the coach left for the 25-mile trip to the ground. The mood on board was boisterous and excited. 'You could see it, especially in the eyes of the young lads. This was the biggest night of their lives. There was plenty of banter. I like a bit of fun and Anton Rogan takes some beating.'

The dressing-room atmosphere was similar. Jokes were cracked, mickey-taking prevalent, lots of stick good-naturedly handed round. The veteran forward, who was 33 on 1 February, has served seven clubs and has been capped 23 times by the Republic of Ireland. He viewed the mood as a good omen.

'In my experience, there's something wrong with a quiet dressing-room,' he said. 'You're left too much alone with your thoughts, and actually that doesn't help you to focus on what's ahead. On Wednesday we were all nervous, I suppose, but we were having a good laugh. The boss, Denis Smith, and his assistant, Malcolm Crosby, just told us to go out and enjoy ourselves. It's important to do that well.'

Oxford enjoyed themselves to such an extent that in a four-minute spell in the second half they scored twice. Byrne gave them the lead after the Leeds goalkeeper Mark Beeney had fumbled the ball - 'Nice to see that, I must admit, but I played with Beeno at Brighton and he's a smashing lad' - and Chris Allen added another.

Byrne recalled: 'We'd changed formation slightly, with me playing up front by myself with Chris and Joey Beauchamp feeding off me on the wings. It had worked pretty well and, when we got the second, I began to think about winning.'

Then Gordon Strachan pulled one back, wonderfully, and Byrne, a wise and wily old bird now, immediately asked referee David Elleray how long remained. 'He told me four and a half minutes, and I thought, 'Oh, my God', but surely even with their tails up they wouldn't equalise.' They did - it was 2-2 after 90 minutes.

'Denis and Malcolm did a wonderful job before extra time. A lot of us were wandering about, thinking we'd had it. Even I, with all that happened at Sunderland, thought it had gone. The crowd had been booing Leeds one minute and now they were right behind them again. Leeds were bound to come at us; they wouldn't be as tired.

'But they came round us all and told us we were still in there, that it wasn't over, that we had a chance to win in extra time. We had to try to pull ourselves round.'

Suddenly, back on the pitch, Byrne remembered, Leeds were not making the running - Oxford were. Jim Magilton hit their third.

'They'd taken the old geezer off by then,' Byrne said self-deprecatingly. 'I was sitting on the bench next to Malcolm Crosby, who took Sunderland to Wembley, and we looked at each other and said, 'Surely they won't come back now'.

'Sometimes you feel you won't get another night like this in football, and then it happens. We stayed in the players' bar till midnight and had a few beers and a sing-song on the way home. But we know we're still in a relegation battle. I've only got three goals in 15 games, but maybe this is a turning point for me and the club.'

(Photograph omitted)

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